Stranded, scared and searching for answers. This is the sad story of many Rugby World Cup fans at Japan 2019.
Supporters across the Konto region woke up on Friday wondering if the previous day’s events really happened. They were not the only ones to awake with that feeling, with players facing long days without matches, media making emergency plans to fill the pages and World Rugby desperately searching for a way out of the mess they’ve landed themselves in.
But that pales in comparison to what the hundreds of thousands of supporters who have travelled to the Far East for what should have been a festival of rugby this weekend are now experiencing.
“It’s ridiculous. I don’t know how many years this has been in the making and to have a contingency plan in place for nothing?” said Peter, from Peebles in Scotland. “Even if you play the games behind closed doors or put them back by a day or so. Three-, four-, five-day turnarounds are standard. We can all do it.”
World Rugby can’t though, at least not at the World Cup. Of course, these are extraordinary circumstances, as on Friday night the most powerful typhoon in 60 years bore down on the south-east coast of Japan. Hagibis will be destructive, disruptive and terrifying, and in all likelihood fatal.
A global sporting event on the level of the Rugby World Cup has never faced this threat before, which is why World Rugby do deserve some leniency on the obvious criticism that is heading their way. But that doesn’t lessen the impact of the stories being told around the Tokyo Bay hotels, where a blend of anger, heartbreak, confusion and fear filled the air.
Perhaps the saddest sight was the one witnessed at the Keio Hotel in Shinjuku. As 300 England supporters arrived to check-in, only to learn the game against France had been cancelled, the players boarded the team bus in front of them departing for Miyazaki, 600 miles away.
“We’re currently staying in Hakone and were originally meant to be here until Saturday morning before travelling to Yokohama for the match,” said Ollie Bunting, who is staying in Tokyo with two friends.
“In light of the weather this has had to change and we are now leaving Friday afternoon. Our flight out is meant to be at 2am on Sunday but it looks like this could be in serious jeopardy now. With no place booked to stay on Saturday night, we will now probably look to head straight to Haneda International Airport on Friday afternoon seeing as we have been advised not to venture outside all day Saturday.
“Obviously we are all very upset about the rugby match but the mood has quickly changed as we try and comprehend what nature of events we might be about to face on Saturday. In terms of official advice locally, the RFU and British Foreign Office we have received very little information. Other than that, everything else seems to be up in the air.”
With two games cancelled on Saturday and Sunday’s Pool A decider between Japan and Scotland in genuine risk of being called off – which will spark its own major crisis if it materialises – suddenly fans have been left with a difficult decision: do they abandon ship and leave Tokyo now? Or do they wait it out, batten down the hatches and hope for the best with the dangled carrot of possibly the most important pool game in World Cup history.
South African Ken Marshall and Englishwoman Rosie Marshall arrived in Japan this week on their honeymoon. Rosie has never seen England play before, and Saturday’s ‘Le Crunch was due to be her first.
“While we were looking forward to the game and especially the atmosphere due to the rivalry of England and France, we understand why the decision was made to cancel the game,” said Ken. “It’s not fair on all the wonderful volunteers and support staff to risk it.
“We are lucky enough to have other tickets for games, but feel awful for those who have travelled a long way to miss out.”
But the newly-married couple were able to hide any frustrations. Rosie added: “We’re probably on the positive side compared to some of the people we’ve spoken to.”
Not everyone shared their view though. “It’s bizarre,” said George from London. “I’ve been speaking to the locals and some say there is even a chance that the typhoon will miss.
“We really don’t understand why the game couldn’t be staged on Friday. Cancelling it seems ridiculous.”
That said, there is a fair share of sympathy for World Rugby and the local organisers. Friday’s headlines brought scathing assessments of the governing body’s failure to put together a “robust contingency plan” that actually involved having the affected matches played, with serious questions set to be asked in the coming week – with or without Japan and Scotland’s clash going ahead.
Yet with Hagibis bearing down on Japan, fans were able to deal with the events with a sense of realism. “I’m gutted, but can understand why they have done it,” said Will, originally from Basingstoke but now living in Sydney and who travelled to Tokyo from Vietnam, taking one of the more scenic routes to the World Cup. “Due to the amount of games being played I think it would have been difficult to change dates.
“I feel for Scotland though, they have a real chance. If their game gets called off it will be a terrible way for them to get dumped out.”
The jury remains out on whether Japan vs Scotland will go ahead, but on Friday night that suddenly didn’t matter. As shops, bars and restaurants shut down for the weekend and the streets emptied, the very real fear hit home that this is no longer about a rugby tournament anymore. This really will be a matter of life and death for thousands of people. The hope is those supporter stories of downhearted disappointment will turn to tales of courage and bravery for those who made it through Typhoon Hagibis. The tragic reality is not everyone will be so fortunate.
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